The Bible: Something More Than What You Read
Last week, we talked about the Bible as something more than what we think it is. The Bible is a collection of stories, letters and books of many different genres written by real people in real places during real times throughout history. It was written by people who struggled and wrestled and doubted and succeeded and failed and celebrated and lamented. These people were trying their best to understand themselves, God, and their relationship with God in this good, but messy, world of ours. These people had different perspectives, different ideas. They saw God in different ways at different times doing different things. And, frankly, they didn’t always agree. But the words the wrote down and passed down always point us towards that something more that is just beneath the surface of everything we see and know.
That the Bible consistently points towards God is the reason we call the Bible the Word of God. It’s not that God literally spoke these words. It’s not that the words fell down from heaven out of the sky. It’s not that God possessed human beings throughout the ages and dictated these words through them. There are religions who do believe those kinds of things about their sacred book – Muslims, Bahais, for example. But not us Christians. We are different. God’s truth is spoken through the stories, experiences, and letters of everyday human beings.
For thousands of years, people have found God through the stories, letters, books, parables, poems, and songs contained in the Bible. These stories have proven the test of time. They are with us today as God’s Word because they have had enduring and transformative power in the lives of billions of people. They have spoken truth to people of every age about the God who is something more than any of us can see or imagine. And it is in this way that the Bible is truth and has authority and is called scripture and sacred and God’s Word.
But even if we get to this depth of understand about our holy book, we still find ourselves with all sorts of difficulties in actually reading and studying and using and living its words in our lives.
The Bible not a book that is easily understood and applied. And any person who says it is just does not understand the nature of communication.
Communication at its core involved at least two parties. Someone speaks and someone hears. And in the process of communication any number of things can (and often do) go wrong. The process might be described like this…
- Someone has a thought
- That person speaks words and sentences to represent those thoughts
- Another person hears these words
- This second person must then piece together the meaning of those words to formulate an understanding of the thoughts those words represent
There are potential pitfalls at every step in this process. Today, I want to talk specifically about the last part of this process, or what we call interpretation. Typically, people today believe that as long as a person speaks clearly enough, then the hearer will inevitably understand. Even though such understanding is not by any means a given, our society has generally applied this idea to the Bible.
You hear people talk about the plain meaning of the Bible or the ordinary sense of scripture. What is behind those ideas is a belief that the thoughts of people who lived thousands of years ago written down in various collections of Hebrew and Greek words have – after going through translation – a clear, simple, plain meaning for you and me living thousands of years later. There is NOTHING ordinary about that! In fact, it’s crazy! It fails to understand the very basics of communication.
The Bible was written in a very different context than what you and I experience each day. It was written by people from very different cultures that you and I live within. It was written with people who had very different perspectives of the world than you and I have today. It was written in a time when there was no ENGLISH language!
There is nothing ordinary or plain when it comes to us understanding the Bible. Instead, studying, understanding, applying, and living the Bible is a process. We often get it wrong. We try and and try to get it right. And by the grace of God we get sometimes get closer and closer and deeper and deeper with our efforts.
But make no mistake, it’s not easy. Communication always involves interpretation. And we really struggle with interpretation in this day and age (more about that in a minute). First, an example of how and why interpretation is so crucial and important in the communication process.
The “Curse of Ham” – Genesis 9:18-27
The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”
- Noah has three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japeth). Shem is the oldest and Japeth is the youngest and we know this because of the order in which their names are listed. Ham is the middle son.
- Noah gets drunk, naked, and his middle son (Ham) walks up on him and sees him naked (this last part is highly inappropriate in this context.)
- Ham tells his older and younger brother about what he saw and they rush out backwards to cover their father without looking at his nakedness.
- Noah wakes up and thinks his youngest son had seen him naked. Then drunken Noah curses his grandson, who is barely even mentioned in the story.
In the 1800s a particular interpretation of this passage became very popular. As man named Josiah Priests lays this interpretation our in a book he wrote in 1852 called Bible Defense of Slavery. He interpretation can be described in this way:
- First, Shem and Japeth were fair skinned. But Ham had black skin because the Hebrew word ham can sometimes mean sunburnt. Sunburnt could mean dark skin, and therefore Ham must be black.
- Second, when Noah is speaking his curse and you read the name Canaan, you should replace the name Canaan with the name Ham. (Josiah Priest literally wrote the name Ham beside the name Canaan in parentheses in his translations of this passage from Genesis)
- Third, Noah’s curse is a curse from God that will last forever. Josiah Priest says: “The words which [Noah] pronounced, and was moved thereto by the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, contained in them…a dreadful CURSE, which not only covered the person and fortunes of Ham, but that of his whole posterity also, to the very end of time…”
This interpretation has huge problems. (As if you cannot already tell!)
- First , Josiah Priest make a huge, obscure, and absurd leap in terms of the meaning of a Hebrew name.
- Second, he makes revisions to the text by replacing one name with another – something I think we would all agree is not a sound interpretative tool.
- Third, he makes drunken Noah’s voice is the voice of God. And that voice spoke a curse. And Priest interprets the curse to be over all Ham descendents forever to the end of time.
Why did Josiah Priest come up with this interpretation?
Well, this interpretation was quiet convenient for people wishing to defend the institution of slavery. It gave them a biblical justification for viewing some people (white people) as superior and therefore rightly the masters of other inferior people (people of color) who because of this curse could justifiably be enslaved.
This interpretation became extremely popular. And because of its popularity it still lives on today. In fact, if you ask someone today, “Does the Bible talk about race?” or what does God say about race?, they will point you to the Curse of Ham/Canaan. And yet this interpretation is extremely problematic on a number of levels.
The point is this: how you interpret the Bible matters.
When we read scripture we always have to beware of what we want it to say, that is, what is convenient because of our social or political beliefs. Anything can be twisted! And that is exactly what Josiah Priest did. His interpretation continues to underwrite the ideology of people who believe white people are better than people of color. So, interpretation of the Bible makes a huge difference in the world we live in.
Now, I said earlier that we are really struggling with interpretation today. Let me explain. It’s wrapped up in the phrase Fake News. Fake News is all about interpretation. What we are really talking about when we say Fake News is the way we see the news and how we interpret events in the world around us compared to the way others see the news and interpret events. Just because my interpretation of events is different than yours does not mean mine is fake and yours is real. Or vice-versa. And for one person to call another person’s view fake is an egregious sign of disrespect. It says, you don’t care what I think, what I see, how the world I am living in might be different than the one you are living in, or how your perspective might be jaded by something that you have missed.
We need a different response…to one another…and to scripture.
Rabbis talk about scripture having seventy faces. As you read scripture you must turn it over and over until you have seen every face. Like a gem, you turn the story, poem, or letter over and over letting the light refract through the various faces of the gem. And with each turn, with each new face, you discover something new, some amazing, something extraordinary that you may have never seen before!
This is what Bible study is. It’s not reading to find the one correct meaning. (If it had but one meaning, then it would be not a living word of God but a dead book.) The Bible is living. Studying it mean turning a story, a passage, a book, a parable around over and over and delving ever deeper into the possibilities of meaning.
As you do so, you begin to see new ideas, new insights that you never saw before. You grow. You mature. You learn. And you become closer to God, closer to Christ in the process.
The same is true with us in the world today. If we brush off our different perspectives and interpretations as fake, then we all become dumber, less wise, less informed, more distant, more antagonistic. We grow apart, we become ignorant, we never mature.
But if we listen and seek to understand, if we turn the gem around 70 times and see the world from every angle then we will find that living in the world is not so different from studying the Bible.
For within both the world around us (created by God) and the Word of God we call the Bible, there is always something more just beneath the surface.